Change of government following elections in North Cyprus

By Justus Leicht
13 January 2004

Elections in December 2003 dealt a heavy blow to the right-wing parties governing the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) under President Rauf Denktash. Despite a stalemate in the allocation of seats in parliament, Denktash has asked the former opposition leader Mehmet Ali Talat to form a government. The elections have not only revealed the deep divisions in Turkish Cypriot society, but have stoked up the conflict between the government and military in Turkey.

The Turkish Republic of North Cyprus was proclaimed in 1983 an “independent state” but is still only recognised as such by Turkey. Its origin goes back to the 1974 military invasion of Cyprus by Turkey. Since then, the north of the island has in reality remained a Turkish military protectorate. It is controlled by Denktash and the extreme right-wing nationalists under the umbrella of the Turkish army.

For a long time, their party was the National Unity Party (UBP), whose chairman Dervis Eroglu was also prime minister. A few years ago, the Democratic Party (DP) split away, under the leadership of the president’s son Serdar Denktash. Vice-Premier Serdar Denktash has appeared somewhat more conciliatory and more “reform-oriented” than the UBP. However, both governing parties were characterised by unrestrained anti-Greek chauvinism.

History of the Cyprus conflict

This must be understood against the background of the history of Cyprus. Until 1959, the island was a British colony. Independence was the result of a decades-long liberation struggle, carried out mainly by members of the Greek Cypriot population, while the Turkish minority was largely passive.

This was due to the policies of the Communist Party of Cyprus (KKP), formed in 1926 under the dominance of Stalinism. In 1941, the KKP became the AKEL, which still dominates the workers movement in southern Cyprus. Between 1941 and 1944, Stalin’s wartime alliance with Britain meant the AKEL did not call for independence at all. But with the beginning of the Cold War, it adapted completely to the Orthodox Church and Greek nationalism, which linked self-determination with “Enosis,” or the union of Cyprus with Greece.

For many Turkish Cypriots, often underprivileged and discriminated day labourers, the fight for independence became identified with Greek chauvinism. This was all the more so since the British colonial authorities recruited Turkish Cypriots as auxiliary policemen, deploying them against the national liberation movement and so inciting the two peoples against one another. Later, this process was carried on through provocations organised by the Turkish secret service.

Accordingly, the period of independence, from 1960 until the Turkish invasion in 1974, was marked by constant tension, conflicts and pogroms on both sides. In 1974, Archbishop Makarios, the president of Cyprus and a Greek nationalist, was brought down by a right-wing officers’ clique supported by the Greek military junta in Athens. In response, the Turkish army occupied the north of the island. The resulting mass flight of both Turkish and Greek Cypriots divided the two populations and cemented the division of the island.

Since then, the north has been controlled by the right-wing nationalists around Denktash, who exploited the genuine fear and problems of the Turkish minority confronting persecution, expulsion and murder. The main political foundation of the ruling clique in North Cyprus was based on encouraging such anxieties. Only by having their own state and the protection of the Turkish army could Turkish Cypriots be defended from destruction by “the Greeks,” ran the mantra extolled daily for decades to Turks in Cyprus and in Turkey.

At the same time, the structure of the population in northern Cyprus changed. Tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots emigrated abroad. In their stead came settlers from the Turkish mainland, often with little education or few qualifications, as well as some 30,000 Turkish soldiers who were stationed on the island. They became the social support of the Denktash regime.

Social tensions

Meanwhile, living conditions for the majority of the population in the north have constantly worsened, particularly relative to the Greek south. Today, average per-capita income in the north is $3,000 compared to about $13,000 in the south. The main reason is the north’s international isolation. Apart from the state bureaucracy, bloated with Denktash supporters, the servicing of the Turkish troops, or employment in the banks and casinos used to launder money for the Turkish mafia, few can earn a living.

Pent-up social frustrations, particularly of younger people, exploded last year in sizeable protests and demonstrations. In the absence of a progressive political alternative, many placed their hopes in the UN’s so-called “Annan plan,” under which the island is to be reunited. This is the precondition for the whole island—i.e., including North Cyprus—becoming a member of the European Union in May. This is said to promise an end to all-pervasive corruption and nepotism and provide an economic impulse, in particular through tourism.

Denktash reacted to the protests in April last year by making travel easier from the north. Afterwards, the situation was temporarily more relaxed. Since then, more than 5,000 Turks have been able to cross the border to work in the Greek south of the island. To be able to pass through the checkpoints, they have to apply for a passport from the Greek Cypriot government, to qualify as citizens of the Republic of Cyprus. More than 60,000 Turks are thought to have obtained such a passport.

These developments show that the “local” Turkish Cypriots are no longer held in sway by nationalism.

This was also reflected in the election result for the opposition parties. The Turkish Republican Party (CTP) of Mehmet Ali Talat, now charged with forming a government, received 35.2 percent of the vote and won 19 seats, nearly trebling its share of the vote compared to the last elections in 1998. The Movement for Peace and Democracy (BDH), allied with Talat, won 13.1 percent and six seats.

The UBP, under former government leader Dervis Eroglu, received only 32.9 percent—nearly 8 percent less than 1998—and secured 18 seats; its ally, the DP, lost around 10 percent, finishing with 12.9 percent and seven seats. The fact that the government parties were still able to secure nearly half the vote is due mainly to their large clientele, closely connected with the state apparatus, and the fears they have encouraged among the Turkish settlers who came to the island after 1974. The right wing and the largely supportive media attacked the opposition, calling them traitors, and also claimed that accepting the Annan plan would mean the expulsion of about 100,000 Turkish settlers, approximately half the population in the north.

Coalition government

A stalemate exists in parliament since the elections—the old government still holds 25 seats, and the opposition now also has 25. Initially, there was much speculation about the holding of fresh elections. These were hoped to bring a clear result in favour of the opposition, which is openly supported by the United States and the European Union (EU). Talat initially excluded forming a coalition with one of the outgoing government parties and had hoped that some members of the UBP or DP would cross the floor and join him—a common occurrence in Turkey.

But after both President Denktash and the Turkish government had called for a grand coalition, Talat finally fell into line. Neither he nor the Turkish government of the AKP under Recep Tayip Erdogan are interested in completely depriving the Denktash clique of power, since this would mean an open confrontation with the powerful military apparatus and a possible mobilisation of the working population against the established power structures.

Neither the European Union nor the government in Ankara are interested in such a development. Cyprus joining the EU in May this year is bound up with free-market policies and opening up the economy, which entails making sharp social attacks on the population. The EU supports the Annan plan, which envisages the reduction of the presence of both Greek and Turkish troops, but the retention of strategically important British military bases.

Accordingly, the Turkish government has avoided giving too open partisan support for the opposition in North Cyprus. At the same time, however, it wants Turkey to join the EU and is under pressure to advance negotiations to accept the Annan plan. Unlike Rauf Denktash, Turkish government head Erdogan expressed his acceptance of the Annan plan as a basis for negotiations, and the Turkish foreign ministry made its own proposals at the end of the year. As well as certain demands, these envisage some concessions, among them the gradual reduction of the presence of Turkish troops from over 30,000 to just 6,000.

This point in particular seems to have excited the anger of the army leadership. The newspaper Cumhurriyet, which is close to the military, reported that the general staff had communicated its displeasure to the government behind closed doors. The government’s concessions in the Cyprus question just went too far, like their passivity in relation to the Kurds’ struggle for autonomy in northern Iraq. Erdogan vehemently denied these reports. No such denial was forthcoming from the general staff, however.

The Turkish military has many reasons for wanting to keep hold of North Cyprus:

First, the island is of enormous strategic importance. It is only 65 kilometres from the Turkish coast, at the heart of the eastern Mediterranean and on the intersection of the sea-lanes between Europe, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and the Suez Canal. Cyprus is also on the sea-lanes from the outlet of the planned oil pipeline from the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan to Baku. The other islands off Turkey’s southern coast are controlled by Greece. There are also thought to be important oil reserves under the sea between Cyprus and Turkey.

Second, Cyprus not only offers possibilities for money laundering, but also provides facilities as an operational base for the Turkish secret service.

And finally, the political and ideological importance for the army of the existence of North Cyprus as a military protectorate cannot be underestimated. The 1974 invasion, referred to in Turkey as a “peace operation”—and which was supported by the entire official “left,” the trade unions and the pro-Moscow Stalinists—enabled the army to pose as the defender of popular rights. Some groups, like the Maoist “Labour Party” (IP) of Dogu Perincek, still defend this position today.

Buelent Ecevit, who was prime minister in 1974, has always pointed out that both the fascist junta in South Cyprus and the right-wing military dictatorship in Greece had collaborated following the intervention. Only three years earlier in 1971, the Turkish army had carried out a putsch, and for two years left-wingers suffered arrest, torture and murder. In 1980, an even bloodier military dictatorship was established over the Turkish people, which they allegedly defended in Cyprus. And despite the Turkish nationalists’ international isolation in the Cyprus question, the weapons embargo imposed by the United States in 1974 was lifted in 1980.

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